Not long ago, I shared Peter Singer's now-famous 2013 TED Talk, The Why and How of Effective Altruism, with a friend to whom I was introducing the concept of effective altruism. In the talk, Professor Singer compares two solutions for blindness: curing trachoma, an infectious bacteria which causes blindness, or providing a guide dog for a blind person. "It costs about 40,000 dollars to train a guide dog and the recipient so the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person," Professor Singer says. Yet highly effective charities can cure one person in a developing nation of trachoma for between 25 and 50 dollars. "You could provide one guide dog for one blind American," Professor Singer continues, "or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. I think it's clear what's the better thing to do."
My friend smarted at that comment. "That's a controversial statement," he said. "You'll upset a lot of people by saying that."
I understand what he meant. It's something effective altruists encounter quite often: we say that we don't donate to charity X because charity Y is more effective. Advocates of charity X then get defensive, citing any number of reasons to support their cause. The conversation veers toward metrics, the importance of one cause or another, the difficulties of evaluating effectiveness… it goes on.
Since charitable giving is often guided by the heart, it is difficult for us to hear why someone might not want to support a cause we hold dear. I wouldn't necessarily enjoy discussing the low cost of curing trachoma with my high school friend Claire, who trained guide dogs herself. A few years ago, I was glad to redirect my annual gift to the Human Rights Campaign toward more effective charities working in developing nations, but I didn't exactly run to my LGBTQ friends and tell them that they too should give their money elsewhere.
A young Cambodian girl after a vision-saving operation by Seva
Effective altruists are guided by the heart and the head. We love numbers and transparency. We like knowing exactly where our money is going, how many people it's helping, and how our chosen charities plan to do even more in the future. But we all started giving for a reason: to help others. When I first began making charitable donations, I didn't even consider those charities' effectiveness. I gave because their mission moved me. I gave because I read appeal letters and beneficiaries' testimonials, and I knew that I wanted to make a difference.
My point is: there is no such thing as "bad" giving. Every donation comes from the impulse to better our world. I would never admonish someone for supporting the provision of guide to dogs to blind people or lobbying for civil rights. With charitable giving in the U.S. on the rise, I am thrilled that more people are making altruism a priority in their lives.
With increased giving and larger gifts, we tell our favorite charities that we trust them to be responsible with our money: to follow through on the goals they've set and promises they've made to us, their supporters. Thankfully, organizations like GiveWell and The Life You Can Save have already done that homework for us, finding the charities that are already operating at their very best.
But if you still want to make a donation to charity that didn't make our list of recommendations, you can encourage accountability by asking for that charity's annual report, earmarking your contributions for a specific program with proven effectiveness (and explaining why!), or requesting to speak to a fundraising officer and learn more about how they use their resources. If you find that your favorite charity meets a high standard of effectiveness and accountability, that's excellent! Show them your support and keep making a difference. But if their record is, say, less than stellar, it may be time to break up and move on.